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Know Your Prospects: Jason Heyward, RF, Atlanta Braves

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Jason Heyward was chosen by the Atlanta Braves as the 14th pick in the first round of the 2007 Major League Baseball draft.

Now, according to Baseball America and USA Today, he’s the No. 1 prospect in all of Minor League Baseball. And with the Stephen Strasburg hype machine chugging along at full steam, Heyward has, in a way, become the forgotten uberprospect of 2009.

But hey, he’s used to it.

Nearly half of Major League Baseball couldn’t see Heyward’s incredible promise; the then 17-year-old high school product from Georgia’s McDonough High was passed on by 12 other teams in 2007’s stacked draft class. Outside of Baltimore’s Matt Wieters and Tampa Bay’s David Price, he’s thoroughly surpassed all of his contemporaries and will become 2010’s premier impact prospect.

It’s a funny story how Heyward fell to the Atlanta Braves. In the high school circuit, the lefthanded Heyward was a feared hitter renowned for his plate discipline. He was pitched around frequently and refused to chase anything out of the zone. As a result, regional MLB scouts rarely saw a full at-bat. When the draft came around, no one was truly sure of the skills Heyward possessed because they simply hadn’t seen them.

But for Atlanta Brave’s scouting director Roy Clark, proximity to the prospect was both a luxury and an advantage.

Heyward was sent to the club’s rookie level teams in the Gulf and Appalachian leagues after the draft. The short stints did little to clarify exactly what Atlanta had signed in Heyward, but the 17-year-old held his own.

Heyward finished third in the low Class A South Atlantic League in batting average (.323) and fourth in on-base percentage (.388) in 2008. A brief call up to the high Class A Myrtle Beach Pelicans at the end of the season wasn’t a success, but the rookie campaign was enough to solidify the rightfielder as Atlanta’s No. 2 prospect behind righthander Tommy Hanson.

Any debate surrounding Heyward’s potential disappeared as he rocketed through three levels of professional baseball in 2009. With the same high Class A Myrtle Beach club where he hit a paltry .182 to finish 2008, Heyward started his dominating season by hitting 10 homeruns, driving in 31 runs and scoring 34 runs in just 49 games.

The performance garnered a promotion to the Double A Southern League, where Heyward slammed 7 homeruns, 30 RBI, and 31 runs in 47 games. The plate discipline that had frustrated high school pitchers and intrigued pro scouts returned: in 195 plate appearances, Heyward walked 28 times compared to just 19 strikeouts. His batting average soared to .352.

The tremendous performance earned him a three-game showcase with the International League’s Gwinnett Braves. He hit .364 in limited action.

Heyward’s progression has many comparing him to former-Brave’s wonderkid Jeff Francoeur. Others seem more satisfied comparing him to a young Frank Thomas, a franchise player that was once the epitome of patience, power, and discipline.

A hybrid of the two seems the most appropriate evaluation.

Heyward’s offensive accomplishments often overshadow his defensive prowess. For a 6’4″, 220 pounder, Heyward is surprisingly lithe patrolling the outfield. He profiles as an above-average corner outfielder with an extremely strong arm a notch below Francoeur’s cannon. Some speculate that Heyward could possibly play centerfield, but his barely above-average speed makes the notion merely a pipe dream.

Offensive comparisons to Francoeur seem uninspired. Francoeur was a strikeout machine at the minor league level, notching 262 punchouts to just 88 base-on-balls. This hacking approach at the plate belied future struggles to come; Francoeur’s inability to adapt to major league breaking balls earned him a return trip to the minors in 2008.

Heyward, on the other hand, has struck out just 138 times and earned 108 walks. His plate discipline has markedly improved at every level and his approach has been described as “cerebral” and “commanding.”

It’s incredibly optimistic to call him the “next Frank Thomas,” but Heyward’s plate presence is extremely polished for a 20-year-old.

Heyward and Francoeur’s power numbers, however, are undoubtedly similar. In his first two full professional seasons, Heyward hit 11 and 17 homeruns, respectively; Francoeur notched 14 and 18 through the same time period. No matter which level he begins the oncoming season in, Heyward will most likely test his power stroke at the expense of a few batting average points.

He doesn’t have incredible speed, but he is just as smart on the basepaths as he is in his outfield routes: he’s been successful 26 times out of 31 tries, an 84 percent success rate.

According to the Brave’s brass and Heyward himself, there is no definitive timeline for Heyward’s ascension to Major League Baseball. If he plays well enough in Spring Training, he’ll make the team and if the team decides he’s not ready, he won’t.

But Atlanta has patience. And for a 14th round pick that has the potential to be a game-changer, they’ll make all the time in the world.


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